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Mount Greylock School Committee Looks Beyond Pandemic

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee last week talked about the post-pandemic "new normal," both from a public health and academic standpoint.
One item on the agenda for the panel's Thursday meeting was the revocation of an interim policy requiring that all students — even homeschoolers — participate in the district's novel coronavirus pool testing program in order to participate in in-person extracurriculars.
The committee ultimately approved the revocation on a vote of 7-0, but first it talked a little about health and safety in the "new normal."
"The culture of the high school … pre-COVID, has been to come to school no matter how sick you are because you don't want to be docked or have an unexcused absence or lose credit in a class," Carolyn Greene said. "If we feel we're out of COVID … but we are coming into flu season and with the Delta variant still out there, will we be more consistent about symptom checking or, at least, messaging to families that if your child isn't feeling well, you shouldn't send them to school?
"I know some workplaces are trying to change that culture."
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said the district dropped its daily symptom screening program after the last day of school in June and has no plans to renew it for the 2021-22 academic year.
"We will be messaging … for the well-being of everyone and especially our students, we need to be mindful about staying home if we're displaying symptoms of things we might pass on," McCandless said.
Committee member Julia Bowen backed up Greene's point about students with symptoms attending school, citing her own children, who had a bad cough last month.
"They were tested for COVID and did not have it, but even the thought of sending them to school and having other kids catch it and then their families would have to get tested for COVID — it's a ripple effect," Bowen said. "Even without COVID, we're just now in a heightened state. I hope the community can say, we will keep our kids home."
Two things the school district likely will not continue in September: the pool testing program itself at the heart of the policy revoked on Thursday and requirements to wear face coverings.
District Business Manager Joe Bergeron told the School Committee it appears the commonwealth will not continue to provide financial support for pool testing in schools. McCandless said that while the district could apply other COVID-related grant money for its own testing program, the costs likely would be significant without the bulk purchasing power of the state program in place.
A continued "mask mandate" seems even less likely.
"It is very clear that if there is a challenge to any locally-adopted mask policy, [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] would fall clearly on the side of the people who were questioning a local mandate to wear masks," McCandless said. "DESE will not have our back if we adopt a local mask mandate at this point."
The commonwealth has been helpful in providing financial support for the expanded summer programming the district implemented to help cover any learning gaps created by the pandemic.
McCandless reported Thursday that on the recommendation of state Rep. John Barrett III, the district applied for and received a state grant of up to $100,000 in matching funds for summer programming. Since the district's expanded summer programming at the three schools is budgeted at just more than $200,000, the state match will cover about half the cost.
McCandless told the committee that unlike national reports they may have heard about districts struggling to fill summer teaching positions, the Mount Greylock district teachers "stepped up and filled in."
He said the summer programming, which has been available to all students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, is serving about 12 percent of the district's population at a cost of about $1,550 per student.
"To help them recover from the year that was and help them get ready to go full speed for the year to come, we're very excited we had this many students take advantage of the enrichment possibility," McCandless said.
McCandless said the district did a survey in the spring, particularly in the elementary schools, to see what gaps needed to be addressed.
"Parents were excellent about responding to the survey," he said. "There's really some well customized programming going on that's really aimed at individual students. At the high school, there is an enrichment piece marketed at students who are ready to roll."
In response to a question from Bowen, McCandless said the district's teachers and principals are thinking about how to assess students' learning gaps in September.
"We don't need to spend two months having kids catch up," he said. "We have to move forward with what the curriculum is and then work to support students where the gaps may be."
McCandless credited Christin Hocking, a special education teacher at Williamstown Elementary School, for coordinating the summer program, which also includes the district's traditional strong summer emphasis on students on individualized education plans.
In other business on Thursday, the School Committee:
Unanimously appointed Patrick Priester, who has been serving as the district's interim director of services, to that position on a full-time basis.
• Unanimously approved a revised School Committee policy on electronic messaging that requires a district official to be copied on all email correspondence between and among committee members.
• Approved revised committee policies on maintaining minutes and setting agendas. The former passed unanimously. The latter passed on a vote of 6-0-1 with Steven Miller abstaining after he tried to persuade his colleagues to reinstate a practice of allowing two members of the committee to force an item onto the meeting agenda. Bowen, who serves on the committee's Policy Subcommittee, explained that it feels such a practice could factionalize the committee and create a greater risk of creating "serial communications" among members in violation of the Open Meeting Law.

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